After almost a year away from her Irish team mates, Ayeisha McFerran says positive changes were visibly apparent in Murcia last week, saying coach Sean Dancer used the time well to put his own imprint on the side.
The goalkeeper was unable to link up with the panel for the guts of 2020 with her SV Kampong club commitments and travel restrictions seeing her staying in the Netherlands for an extended period.
It meant her longest stint apart from the Green Army in the guts of five years and she told the Hook there have been some noticeable developments beyond simply personnel.
“It was weird being so long,” the 2018 FIH Goalkeeper of the Year nominee said. I did kind of slotted back into the team as normal but a lot has changed. “It was initially quite hard coming back into it because they have progressed so much and I haven’t really been involved but soon it was like I had never left.
“[From afar], I probably was aware of most of the changes but the team, on the pitch, has progressed a lot. It could have been very easy for a lot of them just to sit back, especially with the year that it was in it.
“The most important thing was getting back into the international hockey again, especially for me being away for so long. It’s so good to see us going forward and being threatening in front of goals.
“Like when was the last time we put more than 10 goals past Spain in a test series? Sean has finally had a long period of time with the team; he’s been able to implement some of the ideas and stuff, tighten it up and refine them.
“Some things are always going to be a little bit rusty but, sure, that’s what they’ve been yearning for, especially getting the trips away.”
Off the pitch, there were social distancing limitations on the usual team-building events they could do and while the Murcia sun initially allowed them to engage in competitive games outdoors, a new Spanish lockdown curtailed that, too.
But McFerran says the diligent approach to safety protocols should lay a template to aid other international camps going ahead in the Olympic run-in.
To that end, the side have also been working with psychologists on how best to manage the bombardment of conflicting information over whether Tokyo 2021 will go ahead.
“There’s so many rumours coming out from Japan, people saying this and that and whatever. But we’ve decided, as a team that we’re going to be prepared no matter what.
“We’re going in with the aspect of it’s going to happen. When you have the idea that it may not happen, it may not it just causes so much stress, anxiety and energy that as an athlete, you don’t need.
“No matter what happens, we’re going to be in the best shape possible that we can be and we’re going to control what we can control. It’s the only way to look at it.
“Of course, it’s always one of those things where it’s easier said than done. And that’s where, as a group, we’ve got a really strong collective where we all have the same goal and all know what we want.
“If anyone does have an off day or whatever, they could just pick up the phone or text; we all know we can do that with each other.
“We know what our path is, right now and so we’re all committed to staying on that. There’s always there always are going to be doubts and moments in time where individuals may think differently, but we always ultimately come back to what we’ve agreed and what we’ve planned together.”
For now, McFerran is back with Kampong, looking ahead to the Hoofdklasse’s return on Sunday with a date against Laren in a six-pointer near the bottom of the table.
It comes amid a backdrop of a national curfew which has led to riots in the evenings across most of the country but not in Utrecht where she is based.
“It is a pretty calm city. Pretty much everywhere else, they have upped the police presence about the place but it hasn’t really hit here so hopefully it stays that way!”
The games go ahead under strict protocols. The Dutch government cut short the Hoofdklasse after seven rounds before Christmas but the hockey federation – the KNHB – and players argued strongly to get the competition back up and running with the governing body picking up the tab to make it happen.
“To start back training with your team, you have to get tested. Every Sunday before a game or anytime you play a game, you get tested that morning by doctor at the clubhouse. You have to wait for your result coming back and then, if it’s negative, you can progress to the changing rooms.”
It means clubs could lose key players in the hours before their games, increasing the importance of limiting interactions outside hockey.
“Definitely there is that potential. We’ve all discussed we want to keep playing hockey as long as possible. We have to take care of outside life and do what we need to do.
“Everyone wants the league to go ahead and everyone wants to keep playing. We’re very fortunate and definitely not taking advantage of the situation we have.
“I am sure some of the Irish girls at home are probably a little bit jealous that we’re able to get some games under the belt. We’re just very fortunate over here that the government has put protocols in place that has allowed it to happen.
“In Holland, its such a big part of life and they see the enjoyment with not only us playing but people watching as well, albeit from home instead of in the stadium but it’s still important for them to see it!”
McFerran’s Kampong club mate David Harte is also back in action this weekend in a huge clash against men’s league leaders HC Bloemendaal.
The Kinsale man was announced this week as one of 20 Olympians to complete the World Academy of Sport’s Athlete Friendly Education Centre Assessor training programme
The programme aims to provide more support and continue to grow the AFEC schools project and network. The WAoS AFEC project accredits schools which provide flexible learning pathways combined with excellent support services to student-athletes.
The Olympians were selected for the training programme from a pool of more than 170 applicants.
David Harte, who is also a member of the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s Athletes’ Commission is also the secretary of the European Olympic Committees’ Athletes’ Commission.
Speaking about completing the course, Harte said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to have been selected to participate in this really important intiative for athletes.
“Considering the high calibre and quantity of applicants, I’m honoured to have been chosen to play a role in making sure that athletes can compete at the top level while continuing their education, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”